Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 September 2009
THE REFORM OF WRITING
In 1853 Henry Noel Humphreys published a lavish tome entitled The Origin and Progress of the Art of Writing. Following his survey of the world history of writing – from the “Picture-writing of the Mexicans” to the “System of Writing of the Chinese” and “the Cuneiform Writing of Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia” – Humphreys appends a brief coda on the current, Victorian practice of writing. He concludes his survey with a tribute to a new method that he suggests may well utterly and permanently revolutionize the ancient “Art of Writing.” The changes introduced by this new writing system could be so sweeping, he suggests portentously, that we might wonder “whether professorships may be established in our colleges for the study of the ancient pseudo-hieroglyphic character, [that is, ordinary written English] in which books were printed and letters written, so late as the nineteenth century” (Humphreys, Origin and Progress, p. 178). Figuring himself and his age as poised on the brink of a monumental epistemic shift, Humphreys foresees the obsolescence of traditional writing and standard English, and the rise of an altogether new system, one which would eliminate the “arbitrary” and the “contradictory” from writing, and create “a more severe and scientific method, truly and originally founded upon a classification of all the sounds which the human voice is capable of enunciating” (Origin and Progress, p. 177).